By Jeggan C Senghor
In the series of four write-ups we have revisited four encounters with people who were heads of state in various African countries. These have revealed certain qualities of leadership which were very striking. I am positive that some readers would have had experiences with these self-same gentlemen that brought out qualities completely at variance with mine. In time, also, these self-same leaders may have demonstrated such contrary qualities. Nevertheless, this does not detract from the value of the reminiscences. In fact, from my point of view they merely add to their worth.
What then are some of the qualities of good leadership derived from these real-life encounters?
A first is that they had a clear vision for the future. The encounter with Obote, Senghor, and Wade brought this out. They did not hesitate to articulate a perspective of the road that would lead to a preconceived destination. Inevitably, this resulted in them being characterised as utopian dreamers. As an ideology, socialism is more deterministic in terms of the society-to-be. Thus, it was not uncommon for this label to be attached to them. At the same time, this opened such leaders to criticism – both local and external. Nonetheless, they could not be deviated.
A second quality is that of humility, simplicity, and modesty. In their own ways, each of the four personalities was a great man. They had attained great heights and recognition reserved for a few. Yet all were humble enough to agree to be in the company of a relatively lowly person like me. In fact, much the same can be said of other heads of state I had interacted with, namely, Julius Nyerere, Abdou Diouf, Yoweri Museveni, Amadou Tomani Touré, Dawda Jawara, Bingu wa Mutharika, and Ahmed Tejan Kaba. And so also for my other guests who delivered the Jubilee Lectures – Archbishop Robert Runcie, Robert McNamara, and Claude Cheyyson.
But so also with Ibrahim Babangida – which deserves more. I had accompanied our ECA Executive Secretary, Professor Adedeji, to Windhoek to attend the Namibia independence anniversary celebrations in 1990. After the ceremonies, he asked me to go along with him to the airport to see off his head of state, President Babangida. After the formalities we joined the group walking behind the president as he headed for his aeroplane. Suddenly, he slowed down, turned around and greeted the executive secretary. He shook his hands and pleasantries followed. Noticing me he then asked who I am. When Professor told him I am from The Gambia he warmed up, asked a few questions about my country and even as to how his friend President Jawara was doing. He then held my hand and thus we continued all the way to the plane. Arriving, he jokingly asked if I was not going to board with him. All around, especially the countless security boys must have been wondering who was this big tycoon. I was too uncomfortable to bask in my newfound glory. I was completely bowled over for I had never experienced such simplicity from one so highly placed.
Charles Taylor of Liberia was the opposite. He exuded arrogance – not natural but just to annoy, as I interpreted it later. It was a 12-man inter-agency mission, led by the World Bank in which I participated. He kept us waiting for the longest. Then finally cabinet ministers began to appear all looking stiff and nervous. After another pause, Mrs Taylor appeared. Another pause. Then HE, looking as dapper as ever. The team leader introduced the mission and invited each member to introduce his subject. Obviously, Taylor was uninterested. When we finished he merely picked on the last two introductions – mine on the regional dimension of Liberia’s problems and the young man from UNDP who had focused on the disconnect between the realities in the country and perceptions in the world outside. After his endorsement of our views he wished our mission success and marched out. No exchange. No debate. Definitely no hobnobbing. And no lunch!!
Linked to this quality is that of readiness to listen to the opinions of others and to accept criticism.
They were far from being pig-headed, know-it-alls. Rather, they were open to differing views and tolerant. In this regard, I can vouch that President Senghor had one of the finest minds in the world. He mesmerised me with his breadth and depth of knowledge. Yet, he listened to my humble opinions and encouraged me to differ. Where there was substance in my argument he was ready to accept. An example that comes to mind was my criticism of the sort of personalities his government appointed as high commissioners to Banjul – retired primary school teachers, advanced in age, unfamiliar with issues, lacking in imagination, and so forth. He welcomed this observation. At the next opportunity when the incumbent retired, he appointed a successor whose background matched the profile I had favoured. Not only had Senghor listened and accepted a differing viewpoint, but he had also taken action.
The stuff of which real leaders are made!!
Then again the Obote experience brings out another observation – rather than victimise on the basis of received information, he made sure that we had an opportunity to be heard. It is a fact that with our deep-seated insecurities, Africans do everything to bring each other down. They do not hesitate to fabricate falsehoods – even of the most hazardous types – to pull others down and even destroy them. By so doing, they ingratiate themselves to the unsuspecting and further their personal ambitions. The good leader is a good judge of character. If only he can use his two ears instead of one he will be better placed to unmask the self-seeking character assassin.
One by-product of this experience was that I resolved to practice such qualities if I ever found myself in a position of leadership. A good leader inspires others. He serves as a role model for others to emulate.
Dr Jeggan C Senghor is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London and served as head of UNECA. This article was originally written in 2005.